Thursday, October 16, 2014

When You Start to Like the Villain

Screengrab: Blizzard
In the Warlords of Draenor cinematic when Grommash was struggling to launch the damaged iron star, were you silently cheering him on? When you saw Grommash hurtle through a wall of flame to plant Gorehowl in Mannoroth's forehead, did you whisper yesssssss? Did Grommash's declaration of "We will never be slaves!" strike a chord in you, too?

Strange, but I found myself cheering for the expansion's villain, the first time I've done so in Warcraft. I wasn't prepared for Illidan. The Lich King marked my first end boss kill, and though seeing his rise and fall elicited sympathy (partially through the game, and admittedly in much more detail later on when I read the novel), I can't say I hoped he'd pull through somehow. Deathwing was no more than a bull in a china shop, so that made him easy to loathe. And Garrosh was set up to be so antagonistic that only trolls (the personality type, not the race) profess undying allegiance to the disgraced now-former warchief of the Horde.

Scholars of Warcraft lore know what happened with the orcs in the original timeline, and how that contributed to the molding of present-day Azeroth. Grommash drinks the blood, the clans follow and Draenor descends further into madness. In the cinematic, we meet the orc clans at that crossroads moment: drink the Demon Blood and become slaves to the Burning Legion, or refuse it and risk annihilation at the hands of Mannoroth and his army. So did you, like me, cheer for Grommash and the Iron Horde when the demon blood was refused? Did you feel a bit of sympathy for them, perhaps even like them a bit?

On one hand, perhaps Blizzard wanted to demonstrate the ferocity and cunning of these orcs; hell, their leader slew Mannoroth. It lets the players know that this is indeed a badass force we'll soon meet. On the other hand, it shows the orc clans at their most vulnerable point, where the wrong choice would lead them down a path of death and destruction, and the forfeiture of their livelihood as free people. The ironic and perhaps sad part of this is that these orcs are still heading down a path of death and destruction, but unlike their historical counterparts, they won't ever gain a foothold on our Azeroth.

The motives of the Iron Horde are simple and clear. Grommash even puts it out there for us in declaring, "We will never be slaves!" Good on you, man! Standing up for your people, not allowing a larger, more-powerful force to call the shots. The Horde and Alliance have both faced similar threats to their existence in the past, and this is really no different. However, Grommash takes it one step further with the follow-up line of, "But we will be conquerors!"

And that's where Mr. Hellscream and I part ways. I'm not an all-or-nothing type person. In other words, I believe you don't have to be a conqueror if you're not a slave, and vice versa. And it's that last line and the motivation behind it that pulls us---the players---into the mix. While Grommash's base intention is pure and honorable---to not be slaves---the methods he will employ to see that out have little regard for the livelihood of anyone who might get in the way of the end goal. Which seems to be total domination, not just of Draenor, but of many worlds.

I'm reminded of a comment made by actor Ben Foster, who will play Medivh in the Warcraft movie, about director Duncan Jones' approach to the film:

"What's exciting about Duncan Jones' take on this video game is that it shows both sides of the war. It shows both sides of a conflict, which is exciting to me. It's not just a video game turned into a movie. It's asking, hopefully, an important question of, where do we limit our compassion for what we consider to be the bad guys? - IGN Interview

With the Warlords cinematic, our "villains" are humanized early on. I mean, come on: if you knew what Grommsh knew then and there, would you have chosen any differently? It's a pretty cool origin story for the Iron Horde as I see it. It puts a key element to this story right into focus: both sides have a lot to lose in this fight. And I believe the best conflict stories are those that humanize both sides. Look at the Governor's arc in The Walking Dead, or even the actions and motivations of some of the main characters. Look at the entirety of Game of Thrones, and how the line between right, wrong, good and bad is so blurry it's sometimes impossible to see.

If the villain of your story has little more substance than a concrete wall, a tricky obstacle for the protagonist(s) to overcome, you're losing an incredible amount of story possibilities, and avenues to explore that just might cause your audience to become that much more deeply invested.

Do I like the Iron Horde based on what I've seen and what I know? No, of course not. But I can sympathize with their cause. And that their cause is now threatening my character's existence, I'm compelled to action. In a way though, it will be bittersweet when I cut down the final warlord, very much for the same reasons I felt sadness when Arthas fell.

Sadness, if for nothing else but the potential for a powerful enemy to have been a force of good.


  1. Nice post! I think you hit on the real challenge of WOD -- walking that amazing thin line of not portraying orcs (the players) as necessarily evil, but convincing us their forebearers were irredeemably so.

    Up until now the narrative has been: orcs, nobles savages in their own lands, were misled and corrupted by fel magics to become the bloodthirsty beings who attacked Azeroth, and then were returned -- through Thrall's leadership -- back to their savage-but-not-necessarily-evil roots.

    But WOD has to give us truly evil Draenor orcs, who are evil despite not being corrupt.

    It's definitely doable: the Governor in Walking Dead was a good example. I ping ponged between feeling some empathy and wanted him dead -- and ended on the right note (dead, dead, dead!).

    I think Walter White from Breaking Bad would be another example. Though I think I ended that series still rooting for him despite all the bad things he'd done (and there were a lot).

    Think Blizz nailed it for the most part with Arthas.

    On the flip side, agree Deathwing was the worst. He made very little sense (even knowing the story) and I could barely care as I was pulling off his scales.

    Be neat to see if Blizzard can really pull this off, or if we're left at the end of the final battle shrugging our shoulders about why we ever went back through the gate.

    1. Thank you for the comment! I'm really hoping for a deep story along the likes of what we experienced in Wrath. I think this is the perfect expansion to deliver it and possibly get players even more invested in the next adventure.